Islam’s Banlieue Appeal

Yesterday, a girl who wears the hijab entered the diet clinic where I’m staying in Cannes, France. Her mother, Samia, has been here for more than two months so she convinced her daughter, who is much bigger than her, to come and join her at the weight-loss center. A hijabi woman here alone would be harder to fathom. Even though Islam is the second religion here and Arabs are the largest minority you don’t see many women in Islamic covering in public. They cannot attend university or work in public institutions because of an old French law that bans outward display of religious symbols. She is indeed the first woman that I’ve seen in Islamic covering here at the clinic. What is interesting, and I’ve seen this often, is that the mom is not in hijab but the daughter is, a reverse of the trend I saw growing up in Iran. But you see it all over the world now — the new generation being more observant than the old.

In France, it is easy to see why. The Maghrébin immigrants, who were brought in from the former French North African colonies to engage in the kind of labor that the French could not stomach or simply didn’t have the natives to perform, were happy to be given a chance to come and make a new life here in France. The colonial minorities are very docile — I see this difference between myself and the other minorities here. No one rocks the boat. Ever. Not those my age or older anyway.

The lady from Benin, who was a princess in her village, told me quietly that she converted from Islam to Christianity when she came to France thirty some years ago because it was easier. You can really see how the years of colonial rule and immigration has turned them into fearful and overly careful creatures, like deer caught in the beam of headlights. You see in their tired eyes years of kowtowing to the white master. They never give their opinion about something, the Cape Verdian lady was shocked when I was angry and ranting about the doctor. They don’t even complain about the horrid food. Not like the Russian lady who knows very little French, is not even a citizen, but gets everything she wants with her Cossack confidence. A veritable tour de force she doesn’t ‘lean in’ she bulldozes in! But not our colonial minorities, they are more careful, more calculating, more paranoid.

Imagine seeing your mom and dad slaving away at menial jobs and never complaining about being treated like dirt. And you are growing up studying the French curriculum. You read Voltaire while your mom cleans the floors and your dad takes other people’s trash. Of course, it will damage or confuse your sense of identity. You will grow up like other French kids thinking that you have a right to Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. But those republican values become hollow when your mom and dad kowtow and slave all day. You start seeing it as a joke. But unlike your parents, you feel entitled like the French do.

That sense of entitlement makes you angry at things your parents weren’t. French being your language and France your country you see and feel your marginalization because you have been taught to measure and analyze you have been taught the storming of the Bastille and the Battle of Algiers. And you wake up one day not feeling all that French. You don’t feel Moroccan or Algerian either because you don’t even speak the language like you should and you know Paris better than Rabat.

The only channel that you have available to you is Islam. The Islam with which your parents raised you so you wouldn’t fall into the dangers of ghetto life. The Islam that took your mom, for several minutes each day, away from her troubles and the realities of her life as a menial worker has a very strong appeal. Because your parents came with it, because it’s logic is easy to understand especially in the context of the drug infested cities that are the ghettos of this world. Islam also has Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, but this time that concept is spoken in the language of your ancestors and thus resonates better. So you turn back. Back to your roots and to Islam in order to restore some dignity to a badly damaged identity. In the ghettos if you can’t play football like Zidane or score high on the draconian school exams there is no way out. There are really only two choices for those kids in the ghetto: drug dealing and crime or Islam. And the lines are fluid. If you want to quit the drugs and crime you turn to Islam, the cheap rehab of the banlieue or ghetto. Not all turn to radical Islam, thankfully. Most are like Samia’s daughter; they turn to Islam as an affirmation of their post-colonial identity; as a way of saying: I’m not my mom. I’m not your cleaning lady from the colonies.

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